By ROCKY STANLEY
Ryan Gillum washed Monday’s rain-interrupted tuneup round right out of his mind.
Gillum, who lives in Grayson just down I-64, rebounded from an 81 in the Natural Resource Partners Bluegrass Junior qualifier to fire a 3-under par 67 in Wednesday’s opening round at Bellefonte Country Club.
“You never know what’s going to happen on the golf course,” Gillum said. “You can come out and shoot in the 80s, then the next day everything clicks and you can shoot a good number.”
In Gillum’s case, a very good number. He’s in a three-way tie for second place with Wyatt Larkin of Morganton, Ga., and Ben Streepey.
They trail co-leaders Patrick Martin of Birmingham, Ala., and Austen Swentzel by one shot.
Gillum gave himself a belated birthday present on an afternoon when the temperature climbed to 91. The rising sophomore who attends Elliott County High School turned 16 on Tuesday. He spent most of that day on the Bellefonte course as well, playing in a Junior-Am for the American Junior Golf Association event.
“I was hitting the ball better (Tuesday),” Gillum said. He missed the cut last year in his first trip to the tournament and has been doing his best to get comfortable at BCC, also playing four rounds here last week.
All the time and effort paid off Wednesday. Gillum racked up six birdies — three on each side of the course — and hit 15 of 18 greens.
“It feels great,” he said. “I was hitting the ball good and making a lot of putts. It puts me in good position. I just need to keep the game plan and play with confidence.”
Girls defending champion Haylee Harford of Leavittsburg, Ohio, has the lead to herself after posting a 1-over 71. But Katie Page (Louisville) and Tenley Shield (Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.) are just a shot back.
Gillum wasn’t the only area player to hold up against the tough 144-player field, ages 12-18, from 23 states.
Nick Blankenship is tied for 21st at 72 and Ashland Blazer teammate Thomas Hall came in with a 74, good for a share of 44th place among 108 boys. University of Kentucky-bound Ale Walker of Paintsville is tied for ninth on the girls’ side at 76.
Blankenship, who started on No. 10, was 2-under through eight holes before a triple-bogey on the 18th hole. He finished the round on a high note by sinking a birdie putt on No. 9.
After today’s second round the field will be cut to the low 54 boys and 18 girls, plus ties.
“I think I can make the cut,” said Blankenship, a Union College signee. But his bigger goal is to finish in the Top 10.
“It would probably take two par rounds,” he said.
Swentzel and Streepey are both from Nicholasville, Ky. Swentzel helped West Jessamine win the Kentucky high school championship last fall, while Streepey was a key player for fifth-place Lexington Catholic.
Swentzel, 17, put on a birdie blitz in his AJGA debut. Beginning on No. 8, he rolled in five birdies during a span of six holes to produce his career-low round of 66.
“I was confident over the putter today,” he said. “I’m tickled to death. This is a great tournament. I heard it was the most fun of any, and for sure it is.”
Martin said he got off to a slow start, but heeded previous advice from a BCC member to be patient on the tight, tree-lined course.
The 16-year-old has grown six inches to 5-foot-10 since last August. He’s a player who grew up relying on hitting the ball straight and followed that formula in his first open AJGA event.
His six birdies included two of the long-distance variety. Martin made just one bogey.
Martin and Paintsville’s Walker are two players who have been particularly active in the AJGA’s Leadership Links program. Both were among 20 finalists for the USGA-AJGA Presidents’ Leadership Award.
Martin organized the Harvey G. Martin Classic, a golf tournament to honor his late grandfather who died of cancer. The event has raised $25,000 over three years for research at St. Vincent’s Cancer Center in Birmingham.
Walker, meanwhile, has help organize fundraisers for several causes: Hands for Haiti, local tornado victims, the family of a deceased classmate, and breast cancer awareness. She’s also spearheaded several community and environmental action projects as part of Paintsville High’s Pride Club.
“It’s been awesome to contribute to awesome causes,” she said.
Calling the NRP Bluegrass Junior her favorite tournament of the year, Walker wants to go out with a big finish in her final try. She was 18th last year.
“It’s my third time here,” she said. “I’m looking for something better.”
Harford, also playing in the event for the third time, feels right at home. Her opening round included three birdies.
“I am definitely comfortable with the golf course, this is one of my favorite events,” she said.
Nick Carter, president and chief operating officer of Natural Resource Partners, presented Tom Cooksey with framed artwork of Bellefonte Country Club’s signature No. 15 hole during the tournament cookout Wednesday night.
The event is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Cooksey played a huge role in bringing the event to Ashland in 1984, then served as Tournament Chairman for the first 16 years as well as Senior Rules Official throughout. Cooksey, who will be 70 in August, is working the tournament for the final time.
Tom and his wife, Pat, a longtime volunteer at the Bluegrass Junior, received a standing ovation from players and their parents, as well as AJGA and local staff.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.